Why We Use Simulations for Learning

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Why We Use Simulations for Learning

Small group doing a simulation activity

Small group doing a simulation activity

The instructions had been given, the scene set, and the participants assigned their roles. As we walked to the breakout rooms, I chatted with one of the participants who sighed and said, “I hate simulations.”

That wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment. When you announce in the lecture hall that participants are going to get a chance to practice what they’ve been discussing in a simulation, you can feel the dread ripple through the room. It’s the discomfort of having to move from contented passivity to active doing. It’s a very safe thing to watch a video, listen to an expert, or analyze a case study and think, “Oh, yes, I know how to do that.”  It’s much scarier to have to demonstrate your knowledge and skill. You might make a mistake. You will have to take risks. You might have to shift your perspective—even change your mind. And that is exactly why we do simulations.

More specifically, here are five reasons we use simulations in both online and instructor-led courses, supported both by our own experience and by the research:

  1. Provide a safe environment to experiment and practice without serious consequences, while getting constructive feedback. We use simulations in leadership development to let leaders practice soft skills, such as conflict management, that can take time to master. Simulations allow leaders to experiment and make mistakes that help them to learn and grow.  Here’s what the research says:
    • Duke Corporate Education: “These games, both multi-player and individual, provide leaders a ‘practice field’ where risk taking is encouraged and different behaviors and strategies can be employed. They give leaders the chance to experience leadership and make mistakes in a place where the consequences are much milder and easier to recover from.”
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “Spatial boundaries, such as those around leadership development programs in which managers can explore in play (scenarios, simulations, role-plays, outdoor experiences, games and other forms of play) can encourage departures from existing norms and procedures by allowing people to suspend requirements for consistency and rationality, and, as they play with possibilities, develop new skills or self-images that can be transferred back to their day-to-day work environment (Brown & Starkey, 2000; Senge, 1990; Shrage, 2000).”
  2. Improve transfer of learning to the job. In a simulation, learners actually practice what they must do on the job in a realistic context. While the environment may be slightly different, we aim to optimize the fidelity as much as possible. Here’s what the research says:
    • Duke Corporate Education: “Games provide a venue where leaders are forced to make decisions more quickly and operate at a different speed – an environment more akin to the increasingly fast-paced, competitive environment of most industries.”
  3. Foster higher-order thinking skills and higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Simulations require active application of concepts and often synthesis and evaluation of key concepts as well as creation of new approaches. They take learners beyond passive listening to active learning at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Here’s what the research says:
    • Fengfeng Ke’s meta-analysis showed that instructional games seem to foster higher-order thinking such as planning and reasoning more than factual or verbal knowledge.
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “According to Winnicott (1971), play provides an opportunity for thinking spontaneously, using one’s imagination, transforming fragments of reality into a world full of action and adventure, skipping over missing information, and coping creatively with complex and unpredictable situations.”
  4. Improve retention of knowledge. Because learners are more actively and emotionally engaged with what they are learning, they are more likely to remember it. Here’s what the research says:
  5. Foster Emotional Intelligence, empathy, and relationship building. Both our classroom and online simulations require learners to interact with each other to achieve the overall goal. So, collaboration and relationship-building skills are developed in addition to the primary focus of the simulation.  Here’s what the research says:
    • Research cited in an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education: “As noted by Day and coauthors (Day, 2000; Day &Harrison, 2007), play can contribute to leader development by enhancing individual-level intrapersonal skills (e.g., self-regulation, building an inspiring vision), but the mechanisms above can also explain how play can contribute to experimenting and practicing more complex leadership skills at the interpersonal level (e.g., developing high-quality connections, building strong social networks, working more effectively with diverse groups of people of different ethnic, racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds).”

Convinced yet? If not, stay tuned for our next blog post and five more reasons we use simulations. In the meantime, here’s some additional reading to inspire your thinking:

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